Power to the Principals

Most school districts find something that works for one particular teacher for one particular group of kids and then try to force everyone to apply it, as if teachers were robots and kids were interchangeable. It doesn’t often result in high-quality education, but it sure makes life easier for central office bureaucrats.

Education is supposed to involve professionals building relationships with kids. Good teachers in good schools get to know their students and then figure out what works for those kids. Good principals are the same. The best ones are empowered leaders who allocate resources based on what their students need – not what the central office wants.

That is the theme of this year’s must-read education book, “The Secret of TSL” by William G. Ouchi, a professor at UCLA and arguably the nation’s best management writer. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Ouchi explained Japanese management to U.S. business. Now, after observing 665 schools across the U.S. and Canada, Mr. Ouchi concludes that, as in business, management matters in schools.

That may sound obvious, but traditionally public educators assumed that everything in the world but management matters. Public schools have tried fancy buildings, more teachers with master’s degrees and principals with doctorates, more money, “teacher proof” curricula, technology, more (or less) homework, longer school days, more (or less) testing, tracking, de-tracking, smaller class size and endless regulations – everything but better management.

To assure quality and variety, Mr. Ouchi wants to empower principals with “four freedoms”: control over budget, staffing, curricula and calendar.

He also wants to allow school choice and to base a school’s funding on how many parents choose it, because such a system will pressure schools to better serve kids (special needs children would get a higher allocation). Principals would get discretion over how to spend their budgets. They could then hire a larger number of less-experienced teachers or a smaller number of more-experienced ones, based on student needs. Principals could also reallocate positions, from support staff to teachers, as principals in private schools typically do. Empowered principals usually decrease teachers’ “total student load” or TSL (the number of students a teacher has to teach each day), so they can spend more time working with individual students.

A principal has a better idea of what his or her school needs than central office bureaucrats do. Once principals have the power to lead their schools, the superintendent must judge the effects of principals’ decisions: whether parents choose their school, whether principals balance their budgets and, most important, whether kids learn. Holding principals accountable is vital to assuring teacher quality. Principals who can’t hack it must be fired or reassigned.

The most effective urban school districts – such as St. Paul, Minn.; Houston; Boston; and Edmonton, Canada – have all empowered their principals. More recently, New York joined the list. In 2002, New York principals controlled only 6.1 percent of their school budgets; by 2006 they controlled 85 percent. Student performance improved.

Baltimore City schools chief Andrés Alonso, a New York transplant, has empowered his principals, and the student achievement results are positive so far. Yet the transition from a centrally controlled system to a principal-controlled one is not easy. Principals must learn new skills and take new roles which not all welcome, as a recent poll by Baltimore’s Public School Administrator and Supervisors Association suggests. (The survey’s paltry 31 percent response rate likely overstates dissatisfaction, since angry principals are more likely to take the time to fill out and mail surveys.) Still, as Spider-Man puts it, with great power comes great responsibility – responsibility some principals might not want.

A central office that makes all decisions feels comfortable to principals who don’t want to lead their schools. Yet efforts to principal-proof schools work no better than efforts to teacher-proof instruction. As Mr. Ouchi writes, if principals have no control over budget and personnel, they simply cannot lead their schools.

If we want struggling schools to succeed, we must have the courage to give their principals the power to lead – and then hold those principals accountable.

Robert Maranto, a 1976 graduate of Woodlawn High School, is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. His most recent book is “The Politically Correct University.” His e-mail is rmaranto@uark.edu.

Copyright © 2009, The Baltimore Sun

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